Manchester City received some bad news during the international break as John Stones was sent home from England duty due to an injury scare. The centre-back now joins Ruben Dias on the treatment table. That leaves City short of options in the heart of the defence.
It will force Pep Guardiola to turn to Nathan Ake to provide cover and support for Aymeric Laporte. The duo are left-footed and will form a rare partnership in the City backline.
Ruben Dias and Laporte have been the preferred combination for Pep Guardiola this season as City marched towards another league crown. It has been a reliable partnership that has seen City concede the least number of goals in the division so far (18).
But, unlike in previous seasons where the Blues lead the way in the number of goals scored, the team is currently trailing Liverpool. The Reds have netted 75 times and top City in the statistics, who come in second with 68 strikes.
Keeping a tight back line will be important in the remaining nine games of the season, although bridging opposition defences will be as important if not more important. But to stand a chance of winning games, the defence must be watertight.
As seen in the games against Chelsea, where City ran out 1-0 winners in both legs, a clean sheet can mean the difference between a win and a loss. So the players may not need to be the top scorers in the division to win the league. But they have to keep it tight at the back.
Fortunately for the Blues, after the game against Burnley this weekend, Dias may be back to full fitness. The Portuguese’ return will be a welcome development. It will provide much-needed strength at the back.
The crucial games against Atletico Madrid and Liverpool require that the team be at its best in all positions on the pitch. Any weakness can be exploited by the opposition, so having our best legs to call upon will be very important for Pep Guardiola.
Stones has recently raised his game making him a viable partner for Dias, although Laporte has been the regular pairing with the Portugal international this season. But having the luxury of the former Everton man being on the bench will be beneficial to the team as it gives the manager the flexibility to switch things up when necessary.
In the game against Burnley this weekend for example, he could have chosen to use three centre-backs (as he did last term), instead of the usual two, just to deal with the aerial threat of the opponent.
However, Dias is expected to return soon. The Burnley match may be too early for the 24-year-old to feature in, but he may be ready for the Madrid tie.
That’s still under probability as he may not be cleared by the medical unit since rushing him back could be counter-productive. Besides, having gone four weeks without participating in training, he will need some time to regain full fitness after returning from the layoff.
Stones on his part can also be available for selection this weekend as his sending home is said to be as a precaution. It will not be surprising to see the Englishman back to action against Burnley since it was just a case of a tight muscle.
Unless that turns out to be the case, then Stones' injury puts Pep Guardiola and Manchester City in a difficult position. One that could potentially hurt the team with regard to the aspirations for the remainder of the campaign.